'Live' and Still Kicking

Regis Philbin's morning talk show begins its 20th year this week

Talk shows are famous for fizzling. A few last forever. Live with Regis and Kelly this week joins rare company with a celebratory unfurling of its 20th season in syndication.

There is a technical asterisk. The show began as The Morning Show, shown only in New York, in 1983, and hosted by Regis Philbin and Cyndy Garvey, before launching nationally in 1988. Kathie Lee Gifford, who joined in 1985, retired in 2000 and Kelly Ripa succeeded her. The show didn't seem to miss a beat. Gifford will be back on Sept. 14 to co-host alongside Philbin and Ripa.

The time is sweet for 76-year-old Philbin and executive producer Michael Gelman. Their show has outlasted rivals such as The Phil Donahue Show, beaten Today in ratings and finally won a Daytime Emmy in 2006.

“Our show succeeds because Regis is a remarkable storyteller and he never makes people feel inferior,” says Ripa, former All My Children star who was an avid viewer long before anyone ever imagined she'd become Philbin's sidekick. “As a viewer, I felt that when Regis and Kathie Lee had their morning coffee, they were my friends. So when I got the job, I felt like my life hadn't changed—except that now I was inside the TV.”

Gifford has an even simpler explanation for the success of Live. “We had fun together. We always had a very deep respect and affection for one another and the teasing came from that place, even when we got on each other's nerves.”

Philbin has an army of admirers. One is Jimmy Kimmel, host of his own ABC late-night show who in 2002 went to Philbin for advice before his debut. “He said, 'Make the first segment of the show yours, all about you; the rest is guests and comedy.' It may sound simple, but it was a revelation because my instinct was to hide behind comedy bits and video clips,” recalls Kimmel.

“For Johnny Carson, it was easy, and for Regis, it's easy,” says Kimmel. “He can make a monologue out of dinner the night before. I prepare all day. I'm pretty sure Regis will outlive me.”

Another fan is Howie Mandel, host of the NBC hit Deal or No Deal. “To be honest, I don't think I would have done Deal or No Deal had Regis not done Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” says Mandel. “He's entertaining, he's funny and he's a star who removed the stigma from hosting game shows.”

Like Kimmel, Mandel has subbed for Philbin on Live with Regis and Kelly. Both first appeared as guests, a traditional tryout role for future hosting. An eclectic list of others who have done likewise includes Pat Sajak, Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera.

Ask them what the experience was like, and often the first reference is to Ripa. “Kelly, unlike the loopy character she portrays, is extraordinarily bright,” says Wheel of Fortune host Sajak. “She understands her show and her audience and she's been incredibly generous when I've guest-cohosted.”

Spontaneous combustion

The show feels like home, to some degree because it's not overproduced and rehearsed. Philbin and Ripa avoid each other before the show so what they say is actually spontaneous. And like Philbin, Ripa is naturally ebullient, and just as quick with a witty or sarcastic remark. During commercials, the audience shouts out to them and these two love to mingle.

“I feel the show reached another level with the addition of Kelly,” says Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, who has substituted for Philbin more than anyone else. “She is so good that I think she is often underrated,” says Probst. “I am blown away by Kelly's ability to riff off anything I say. I'll launch into a story and her wit is so fast that it's as if we scripted it beforehand.”

Philbin is known to lose his temper—usually over a muffed element in the show, which is, after all, done live. (Last week, Gelman arranged for the Goodyear blimp to be outdoors flashing “Regis Rocks” on its underside. Philbin ignored Gelman's scribbled notes to introduce the live blimp video, and when Philbin finally got around to it, the blimp wasn't saying anything anymore. Philbin chided Gelman (as he so often does, mostly in mock-disgust) but still it was unusual to hear Gelman retort so naturally, “Well, it would have said something if you paid attention to my note five minutes ago.” Gelman means it, but it's not a confrontation. Live seems more sitcom than melodrama.

If Philbin can roast Ripa or staff, the way he treats guests is considered a gold standard. “He has an ability, similar to Oprah [Winfrey], to make everybody who sits next to him look good,” says Probst.

Live's relevance isn't associated with titillation or dysfunctional drama. The program also has a kind of Rodney Dangerfield feel to it. Even though it has four million viewers daily and solid ratings, Live pretends it's ignored and disrespcted.

In response to continued slighting by Emmy voters (this was before 2006), Live with Regis and Kelly created the “Rellys,” awards that mock awards. Joan Rivers, who hosts the Rellys, provides perhaps the best rapid-fire summary of why the show has lasted 20 years.

“People don't know how smart it is,” she says. “Second, the age-partnering works—they're friends, they're funny, there's a little edge. They do their homework. They listen.”

Gelman notes, “People may be titillated by the more sensationalistic talk shows—they'll tune in to see Geraldo get hit by a chair—but in the long run, you can't produce that kind of sensationalism every day. Making the show more about the personalities and the Live family establishes a relationship that's had viewers tuning in every day for 20 years.”